WPI Community Comes Together to Keep Coronavirus Out
Before the start of the school year, Manjusha Chava ’22 was a self-proclaimed “Negative Nancy” about returning to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I thought once we all came back to campus for the year, we’d be sent right home,” says Chava, a robotics engineering and electrical and computer engineering double major.
But observing fellow students take coronavirus seriously, such as by distancing in the Dunkin’ line in the Campus Center and pumping hand sanitizer onto their palms, has shifted her perspective.
“Other community members and I are getting tested [for COVID] every week. You can see how careful everyone is being while interacting with each other.”
Across campus, WPI community members are seeing a greater sense of self-awareness in others, and a growing culture in which people take care of each other, which was already rooted in the university’s way of life. Following important health behaviors—such as keeping the recommended six-foot distance between other people, keeping faces covered, washing hands frequently, and following the testing protocols—and encouraging peers to follow suit helps keep WPI and surrounding neighborhoods safe and healthy.
These efforts have proven effective, as the university’s ongoing routine testing—highlighted in the COVID-19 Dashboard—has identified low numbers of positive cases, helped the community manage well in A-Term, and gotten everyone prepared for B-Term.
The Science Behind Human Behavior
In typical theory and practice fashion, WPI experts like to point out the science at play here.
Jeanine Skorinko, professor of psychology, says humans are built to adapt to behaviors, particularly if someone sees peers engage in those behaviors as a collective group. This is especially the case when they are caught in a scenario of uncertainty, like navigating everyday life during a pandemic.
“We look to others for cues on how to act and think in situations that are ambiguous, like a pandemic,” she says. “We start paying more attention to others and checking in with them. We start paying more attention to the ‘other’ instead of the ‘self.’”
How we feel about and interpret others’ behaviors factors in, too, particularly when someone wants to fit in with a group. “So, if we look around campus and see that everyone is wearing a mask, we realize we should be wearing a mask, too,” Skorinko says.
The messages that WPI sends to its community about how to navigate campus life during the pandemic are also crucial to encourage health and safety-conscious behavior, says Angela Incollingo Rodriguez, a health psychologist and assistant professor of psychology. “And, you have to utilize a variety of message styles too, since different people respond better to different types of messages for different types of behaviors.”
In particular, she says it’s important for the type of message you use to match the behavior you’re encouraging. For example, if you want a community to do an “illness detection behavior” like getting tested, you should highlight what they might otherwise lose (“Missing a COVID test limits our ability to detect and increases the likelihood of COVID spreading.”). On the other hand, if you want a community to display a “health promotion behavior” like wearing a mask, you should emphasize what they will gain from this (“If you wear a mask, you’ll help keep the campus open so you can enjoy your college experience.”).
But, in order for each type of messaging to be successful, “you need to have consistency with both,” Incollingo Rodriguez says.
How Actions and Messages Are Getting the Word Out
For starters, the university’s Marketing Communications team has been working with campus partners—including students—since the summer to develop and distribute campaigns to keep the campus thinking about health and safety.
Students, such as Robert Brodin ’23, gave Marketing Communications valuable insight into the student body’s wants and needs for a successful return to campus during a pandemic, and helped develop strategies to cultivate a health-conscious culture on campus.
“I thought about what was meaningful to me as a student, and it was clear that other students wanted to be on campus to have that college experience,” says Brodin, a computer science major. “Working with Marketing Communications and the Dean of Students office gave us an open space to share our ideas about how to motivate others to abide by COVID-19 restrictions.”
From those conversations two major campaigns were born. With #Don’tBeThatGoat, students are encouraging campus members to not be the outlier who breaks the COVID-19 rules. #ProtectTheHerd influences the community to be mindful about WPI’s COVID-19 code of conduct, and encourages others to spread the word.
Emily Perlow, associate dean of students, says that both messages and actions are needed to cultivate a positive community climate. In WPI’s case, that meant working with student groups to gather feedback on what they were seeing and hearing about living on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of the initiatives on campus surrounding positive health behaviors during the pandemic are student-driven, like #Don’tBeThatGoat and #ProtecttheHerd,” she says. “They’re the ones who drive it and show ‘this is what we do here, our culture entails taking care of each other.’ This is just one of the unique cultural features of WPI, and we needed to tap into our students to express it.”
“Student-driven was our goal from the start,” says Maureen Deiana, chief marketing officer. “We knew better than to be talking ‘at them,’ it had to come from them. We often turn to our students to tell their authentic stories about their WPI experience, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch to have them inform the creative. The campaigns have been performing well on social media, but the ‘we nailed it’ moment for me was seeing the sign “Don’tBeThatGoat” in post-it notes on a residence hall.”
Early this fall, WPI invited students to submit designs for the Face Covering Design Challenge to show their goat pride and help keep the campus community safe. The contest winner, Theresa Torraca ’21, is a biomedical engineering major whose design (pictured here) will be fabricated and used as part of future campus giveaways.
The Road Ahead
Perlow says she’s pleased with how the campus as a whole, particularly students, are treating WPI’s COVID-19 safety policies—they’re wearing face coverings and holding each other accountable. The key to keeping this up, she says, is diligence.
“You feel this positive pressure among students that says, ‘I want to be here, I learn better in person, please don’t mess this up for me,’” says Perlow. “I hope to keep seeing students making safe connections with each other, helping keep the campus safe, and supporting this sense of wellness and belonging at WPI.”
Many students feel the same way. Some are even taking protective behaviors against the pandemic to another level, like Jake Backer ’23, a computer science major. Inspired by some disinformation about COVID-19 and careless behaviors swirling around his hometown, Backer posted a message on Reddit urging the WPI community to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 guidelines prior to returning to campus for the fall.
“I wanted to remind WPI students about the facts around the pandemic and to be safe,” he says. “Even though many people on our campus won't be affected, they could potentially spread the virus to those who are at risk, including professors or even fellow students with underlying conditions.”
The computer science major took his passion for safety even further by designing his own COVID-19 simulator, which can model the spread of the virus throughout WPI’s campus if an outbreak occurred.
“The simulator could potentially be used for decision making,” he says. “My goal is to make it as accurate as possible to our actual student population.”
Nicholas Krichevsky ’21, a computer science major, says he always wears a mask, and makes sure his classmates do the same. And, if he encounters anyone without a mask, his friends have him covered. “Some of my friends even carry around extra surgical masks to offer up!” he says.
Krichevsky also hopes that compassionate actions like these—whether it’s wearing a mask, providing a mask to someone else, or reminding someone to be safe—will keep the WPI community headed in a healthy direction.
“My hope is that people don't see the requirements as a restriction, but rather as the right thing to do,” he says. “The trickiest part of this pandemic is remembering that the measures you take mostly do not protect yourself, but protect others.”
Based upon the campus community’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, Backer agrees, and says he’s confident faculty, students, staff, and administrators have excellent odds of staying healthy, and keeping WPI open.
“People are doing their part to encourage others to follow the guidelines as well as reporting violations that could potentially cause an outbreak,” he says. “If people keep these behaviors up, I'm very hopeful that we will remain on campus through the rest of B-Term. The WPI community, the administration and students included, is doing an amazing job at handling this entire situation.”
Thanks to everyone’s diligent actions, Chava says she believes the university will persevere through the pandemic, and even help other colleges and universities that are struggling through these times.
“A great thing about the WPI community is that it believes in the science cooperative,” she says. “We’re making changes for the better. I’m proud of WPI as a community.”